Imagine you are a forty-year old who was severely injured in an automobile crash and suffered amnesia that wiped out thirteen years of your life, two periods: ages 10-12 and 21-30. Then after enduring the dark space in your memory, sometimes agonizingly, you stumble on several trunks in your attic. You open the trunks with difficulty and find old, frequently torn, moldy, disheveled letters, scrapes of paper, and memoranda that were written during these thirteen years. You read them with astonishment. Like the plot of a mystery novel, you find that these papers reveal facts about your life that you had forgotten. They disclose things about you that are radically different than your image of yourself. This is what happened in a synagogue storeroom, called a Geniza, in Egypt, at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Cairo Geniza

Civilization lost its memory of Jewish happenings during the first half of the second Temple period, from about 536 until about 165 BCE, and for centuries of the Middle Ages. Then, like the amnesiac in the example, scholars unearthed some three hundred thousand documents from these periods.

Jews and many Christians considered God’s name so holy they felt it was wrong to treat the name as trash and toss it like garbage. Thus, in ancient time, they stopped mentioning or writing God’s name and substituted “Lord” for y-h-v-h. This sensitivity was later extended. Jews began to bury papers containing God’s name, as people bury relatives, with respect. Soon, in Cairo, Egypt, from about the eleventh century, Jews placed many of their unwanted documents in a storeroom in the Cairo synagogue, as well as other synagogues, and they buried some as well, even papers without God’s name, for writing too, they felt, has a holiness. Soon, the Egyptian Jews began to place all the papers and scrolls that they no longer wanted in the Geniza, and the Geniza held hundreds of thousands of documents that reveal the lives and thinking – businesses, family life, and religious – of Jews and Arabs of the middle ages until the present time.

Rabbi Mark Glickman’swell-written book Sacred Treasure – The Cairo Genizah (the name is sometimes spelt with an additional h) that reads like a novel tells the history of the discovery of the contents of the Cairo Genizah and what many of the documents reveal. He reveals how in December 1896, Rabbi Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University entered the attic-like chamber of the Ben Ezra Synagogue to look at the texts and documents of every kind that the Cairo Jews had tossed into the chamber for more than eight hundred years, since the first papers fluttered to its floor in 1025. He tells us the history of Jews in Cairo and the history of the synagogue, how the scholarly world knew about the treasures that the synagogue contained but ignored them, how the scholars suddenly awaked to the realization that the room contained a treasure of information, how this awakening caused the scholars in an Indiana Jones and Da Vinci Code fashion to rush to grab the treasure, how local Egyptians stole items to sell them to the scholars, how some scholars sought prestige and lied about their finds, how Schechter saved over a hundred thousand of the documents, but ignored some of them, and how today there are 291,793 of them in some three dozen different collections scattered throughout the world, including England, United States, Hungary, Switzerland, Israel,Germany, France, Austria, and Canada. He also relates how other scholars uncovered significant items that Schechter overlooked and how the documents are handled today.

Examples of the many found documents

Among many other discoveries in Cairo were the following. Scholars knew that the famous book by Ben Sira, Ecclesiasticus, composed in the second century BCE and quoted frequently in the Talmud, was composed in Hebrew, but the original Hebrew was lost. It was found in the Geniza.

We knew, to site another example, that there was a sixth century Palestinian poet Yannai who wrote liturgical compositions, one of the earliest poets to do so, but had only a few of his poems. Schechter found over eight hundred of Yannai’s poems in the Genizah. He was probably the first poet who composed poems for synagogue services.

There are interesting palimpsests, writings written over scratched out prior writing, a process used to save parchment. Modern science can restore the underlying older, frequently more valuable text. Manuscripts penned by members of the Jewish sect Karaites,who rejected rabbinical innovations, were in the cache, including marriage contracts that disclose interesting stories of how fortunes were made and lost and wives retaken after a divorce. There were business contracts, trade documents between Jews and India, letters that tell tales of family life,information about common people and community leaders, records and deeds, a host of scholarly writings, letters finally revealing what happened to the famous Jewish poet Yehudah Halevi during the final years of his life, and much more.

There is the last letter that Moses Maimonides’ bother David wrote to Maimonides just before he died in a ship wreck. The letter discloses why he, a merchant, undertook his fatal trip to India; he was unable to find enough merchandise in Lower Egypt, and rather than return home empty-handed decided to sail to India to purchase goods.Maimonides loved his brother intensely. He became severely depressed for a full year when he heard of his brother’s death. We can easily imagine that he must have handled this very letter many times. Other Maimonides finds include many original documents in his own handwriting; some have cross outs, changes he made in his monumental Code of Jewish Law. Some were answers that he wrote to question that were sent to him. Talmud scholars today ponder the cross outs and ask why Maimonides felt he had to change what he wrote. There is even a document by Maimonides containing the ingredients of a medieval Viagra.

There were also documents of an eleventh century Italian Roman Catholic priest Giovan who was horrified and revolted by the massacres of innocent Jews committed by members of the supposedly holy first crusade of 1096 that he converted to Judaism and took the name Ovadiah. We read how he was persecuted by Christians for his conversion and how he was treated by Jews. He composed a piece of Jewish music. His history along with the sheet of music was found in the Genizah, and his music can now be heard on the internet.

Another find was a parchment scroll of the rabbinic book Avot d’Rabbi Natan written sometime in or around the fifth century CE. “For centuries,” Glickman writes, “Rabbinic teachings have been printed in books; only the Written Torah appears in scroll form.” We had supposed that this was always the practice. “We know now that past Rabbinic books also were put into scrolls.” These are just some of the many Genizah finds.

In summary, many ancient tales tell of romantic dreams of people finding buried treasures that altered their lives; treasures that were usually comprised of gold and precious jewels. During the past 120 years this fantasy has become true. No treasure is greater than knowledge, especially knowledge that affects our lives and how we think of ourselves.

[1] Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, Nextbook, 2011. Mark Glickman, Sacred Treasure – The Cairo Genizah, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011.